Causes & Symptoms of Sexually Maladaptive Behaviors

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Understanding Sexually Maladaptive Disorder

When children and adolescents display an abnormal pattern of acting out in sexual manners that are grossly out of proportion to normal development, they may have sexually maladaptive behaviors. While sexual exploration and play can be considered a natural part of a child’s development, there are some behaviors that go beyond harmless, explorative curiosity and enter into a realm of dangerous consequences. When sexual behaviors reach this point, the physical and emotional well-being of the child is put at risk. Additionally, these behaviors can put the safety of those around that child at risk as well.

Sexually maladaptive behaviors occur across a broad spectrum and will present differently in each child and adolescent. They can range in severity and in the level of potential harm that threatens other children or animals. While sexually maladaptive behaviors, or sexual behavior problems, are not a specific diagnosis, they can be classified as a cluster of behaviors that exist outside that which is considered to be acceptable social limits. Additionally, sexual behaviors are considered to be maladaptive when they cause social impairment, disruption in daily functioning, and physical and emotional pain and discomfort to oneself and/or others.

Causes and Risk Factors

There can be many different reasons why children participate in inappropriate sexual behaviors. When children and adolescents are struggling with sexually maladaptive behaviors, however, it is important to keep in mind that, in the vast majority of the cases, the behaviors are not being conducted out of a need for sexual gratification. Rather, children who participate in such behaviors have likely experienced or are currently experiencing outside factors that have caused this maladaptive reaction.

Physical: Neuroimaging studies have provided evidence that children who engage in sexually maladaptive behaviors have variances in the way that their brains are structured. It is believed by some researchers that these variances can possibly be the result of mistreatment or the result of birth defects.

Environmental: It is extremely common that children and adolescents who display sexually maladaptive behaviors have been victims of some form of sexual abuse. In addition, for some children whose parents who have failed to set appropriate boundaries, are not present in their lives or do not play an active role in their lives, or who are addicts, may be at an increased risk for developing behavior disturbances and begin acting out sexually.

Risk Factors:

  • Having learned to masturbate as a means of self-soothing
  • Being exposed to sexual behavior at home or in the media
  • Being moved in and out of different foster homes
  • Having been the victim of sexual abuse / rape / molestation
  • Having been the victim of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and/or neglect
  • Exposure to others being made the victim of unwanted sexual acts

Signs and Symptoms

There are a variety of signs that may indicate that a child or adolescent is participating in sexually maladaptive behaviors. While the signs will vary from child to child, none should be ignored as they can be indicative that a greater problem exists. Some symptoms that may be displayed by a child or adolescent who is partaking in sexually maladaptive behaviors can include:

  • Blatantly ignoring rules
  • Having blatant disregard for figures of authority
  • Displaying unprovoked aggressive behaviors
  • Lacking age-appropriate social skills
  • Having hidden pornography, especially when under the age of 12
  • Disturbing toileting behaviors
  • Initiating inappropriate sexual contact with other children
  • Rubbing one’s body against others
  • Repeatedly exposing oneself in public settings
  • Causing harm to one’s own genitals
  • Inserting objects into one’s genitals or anus
  • Touching the genitals of animals
  • Trying to insert one’s tongue into another person’s mouth when kissing
  • Displaying an extreme and inappropriate curiosity about the bodies of adults and other children
  • Touching other children or adults in inappropriate ways
  • Making crude movements associated with sexual acts
  • Asking other children or adults to engage in sexual acts with him or her
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Effects of Sexually Maladaptive Behavior

When individuals engage in sexually maladaptive behaviors during their childhood and adolescence, and do not receive treatment in order to overcome such behaviors, the long-term consequences can be monumental. It is imperative that parents, teachers, or any other type of authority figure who notices this type of behavior being exhibited by a child or adolescent intervene and get him or her the help that he or she needs. When left unaddressed, the following effects can occur:

  • School difficulties / academic failure
  • Drastically lowered self-esteem and sense of self-worth
  • Developing an addiction to or dependence on substances
  • Lacking the ability to create and maintain lasting friendships
  • Lacking the ability to create and maintain healthy romantic relationships
  • Interaction with the legal system
  • Incarceration
  • Having to register as a sex offender
  • Inability to acquire and maintain employment

Co-Occurring Disorders

There are many cases where children and adolescents who participate in sexually maladaptive behaviors are also struggling with another psychological disorder. Examples of disorders that have been known to occur alongside sexually maladaptive behaviors include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Communication disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Learning disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Substance use disorders

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